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For International Students, No Home Away from Home

By Azan Z. Virji
Azan Z. Virji is a first-year graduate student at Harvard Medical School.

During these next few weeks, about 150 million Americans will receive a check from the federal government as part of the COVID-19 Economic Impact Payments. But a large number of individuals who call the United States their second home will receive no help and will be expected to fend for themselves. Among them are students — international students — who pay their taxes, speak the national language, and, like everyone else, are searching for the “American Dream.” This group is substantial: America is home to over 1,000,000 international students who make up 5.5 percent of the nation’s total higher education population.

When COVID-19 cases were on the rise, many universities across the U.S. gave their students a fixed number of days to evacuate their dormitories. The international students who were able to flee the country before the institution of travel restrictions are now in different time zones, trying to join online classes at unreasonable hours of the day.

But those who were not able to travel to their home country because of financial constraints or travel restrictions already in place are now trapped in the U.S. In many cases, they have nowhere to live, are isolated from the community they bonded with, and lack a steady source of income.

This is the predicament I find myself in.

Put yourself in my shoes: You’re a student at an American university, and you call the dorms your home. Your main source of income involves helping professors set up classroom tech equipment. You’ve made friends who live all across the U.S. and the world.

Overnight, all of this disappears. You can’t go home because you can’t afford to, and you can’t risk exposing your parents, who are already immunocompromised, to the virus. How are your low-income Tanzanian parents, who would be considered severely low-income here in the U.S., going to survive if COVID-19 reaches your hometown?

Back here in your second home, if you fall sick, there is no one here to look out for you. If you suddenly find yourself in a medical emergency, there is no way either of your parents will be able to make it here to see you due to both financial and visa restrictions.

You try to assess your own financial situation and remember you spent $1600 of your savings booking a ticket to go home in July. When you ask the airline for a refund, you are given a travel voucher to be used at a later date instead. Through all of these challenging moments, you are expected to continue to attend your classes and learn the material.

You find yourself feeling helpless, alone, and praying that this will all be over soon.

But the U.S. could be doing more to help alleviate this difficult situation for international students like me by expanding the stimulus package to include us. From three perspectives — fiscal, public health, and moral — such an expansion would be beneficial.

First, given the fiscal value that foreign students add to the U.S. economy, keeping them financially stable in these trying times is a small price to pay. During the 2018-2019 academic year, international students contributed nearly $41 billion to the U.S. economy and supported over 450,000 jobs. Additionally, lawful permanent residents are liable for Social Security and Medicare taxes even though they may never experience the returns on these investments. In addition to acknowledging their contributions to the economy, providing financial support to international students would ensure that they aren’t forced into financial insecurity — a situation that could lead to a downstream economic impact by affecting their education and future plans in the U.S.

Secondly, from the public health perspective, the most efficient way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to reduce contact with individuals. By providing international students with financial support, the U.S. encourages them to stay at home during this pandemic.

Finally, from a moral perspective, financial security is a human right. Socioeconomic status and financial well-being are inextricably intertwined with health. Many international students, who are restricted to working on-campus jobs, have lost their jobs due to university closures. Just like all other Americans, international students deserve to have an income to purchase food and other basic necessities. No one should go to bed hungry, especially during this pandemic.

Aside from international students, there are many other groups, such as asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants, who have been sidelined from receiving governmental support. The same reasoning applies to them too. Ultimately, helping these marginalized groups reaffirms the commitment of the U.S. as a place that is welcoming for all.

Everyone’s wellbeing, regardless of citizenship status, must be considered as the pandemic continues to grow. There are places, including within the U.S., that have reached this conclusion. For example, in late March, Portugal temporarily gave all migrants and asylum-seekers in the country full citizenship rights — thus granting them access to social security and healthcare — while it deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, California recently announced that it will commit $75 million of taxpayer money to create a disaster relief fund for undocumented immigrants. The U.S. as a whole should follow these examples.

Until everyone in the U.S. is granted basic human rights, I will continue to call my parents daily through the shaky internet connection — together hoping for better days. Just like the pandemic transcends borders, compassion and aid must do the same. As humanity finds itself fighting a common threat, it must become more united than ever before.

Azan Z. Virji is a first-year graduate student at Harvard Medical School.

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